COMICS AREN’T ALWAYS FUNNY

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There much talk at the moment on local radio concerning a “graphic novel” about the life of Bobby Sands the Irish republican hunger -striker, so before we go any further I’ll lay out my stall.For one thing I’ve never liked the term “graphic novel” and I’ll explain in more detail presently.
The first thing I’d like to comment on was not that the book was funded by some local Arts Council authority as it appears to have been, or whether or not it reflected a polarising point -of -view in our divided Norneverland community.In the radio piece which I heard and which Jude took an active part in, those points seemed to be the entire concern . There was no mention of how well-written the story arc was .Nothing was said about the quality of the prose or the construction of the tale being told. indeed ., for a graphic novel , there was no mention of the quality of the artwork. in other words , was this book any good? This was not a reasoned critique of the book itself, but rather the fact that it had the temerity to exist at all.
The long and the short of it was that the unionists interviewed didn’t want any part of it and would prefer that all copies of it were burnt to carbon in a large, towering pyre. In fact ,I’d imagine that several copies of the tome will meet such a fate on our mid-year celebratory bonfires. I’m against censorship in so many areas and believe freedom of expression in the arts should be paramount.Destroying and censoring art and literature is what Nazis and certain religious groups have as their default option .It’s like covering up the genitalia on statues or burning books. It’s not a great method of learning anything about humanity.
In the case of the Bobby Sands book , it is one man’s version of another man’s life. It may be completely true or a partial construct but that is no different from the tale-telling in any biography about anyone. …should that be Winston Churchill or Adolf Hitler. The great comics artist Frank Bellamy, produced among a lifetime of many beautiful painted comic strips, such as “Fraser of Africa” , a truly excellent work on the story of Churchill’s life, entitled “The Happy Warrior “. This featured on the back page of the “Eagle” comic in the 1950’s and was later re- printed as a complete hardbound comic book.
My main beef is that comics have no real need to be called “graphic novels”, as if such an inflated title makes them a new artform to be suddenly taken seriously. They have always been a truly unique form of expression in any case. They should be taken serious just by being “comics”. I’ve loved comics for some sixty years since I was a small boy. They are like television for intelligent people who can see and also read….and that does not necessarily require an upper or lower age -limit.I believe the term “graphic novel” came about because many unknowingly viewed this “comic book” artform as a medium for children, alone ,even though it was possible for any really good artist/storyteller to tell any kind of story for any age-group. The quality of the artwork and how it aids the storytelling by illustrating what it is hard to describe and writing descriptions or thoughts about what is not visible. In comics there has developed an abstract amalgam of text and imagery and what has become very unique story-telling language .
Will Eisner, the creator of the character “the Spirit” has been cited as the first comic artist to produce a “graphic novel” with his “A Contract With God”, but Eisner , like many creators in the 1940’s and 1950’s, had an ambivalent attitude to their craft. Most of them felt that their work was artistically under-appreciated and many had an inferiority complex about it. If you didn’t work for the major newspaper syndicates on a daily multi -selling strip featured in the “Funnies” , you aspired to illustrating the “Slicks”, those high- profile, beautifully printed magazines that carried painted covers and interior illustrations ….or you might want ultimately to be a fine “Gallery” artist. The comic -format was seen as a lesser form , even though it took great artistic skill to produce it and indeed eisner used it very successfully as an instructive tool for the Us Army. There was plenty of dross, of course, as there is in any medium, but there was also much acclaimed artwork . Many strips such as Winsor McCay’s “Little Nemo” or George Herriman’s “Krazy Kat” were such unique artistic statements that they literally died with their creators.
I came across Art Speigelman’s Pulitzer prize winning “Maus”, about his father’s experience as a Jew in Nazi Germany , not in the glossy “graphic novel” format that later became the bookshop staple, but rather in a little “underground” hippy comic some forty five years ago. Speigelman wrote and drew the story in parts using the stories his father related on tape ,about the war some twenty five years previous. These underground comics were called “comix” to distinguish them from the super-hero fare that the major companies produced.
Calling them graphic novels began in earnest from the 1980’s onwards , but I have to say the appellation does not sit well with this comics fan.That said , Bobby Sands was a famous person who lived a unique life and became famous on a world’s scale. Whether he is viewed as a hero or a villian is besides the point.The aforementioned Mr Churchill has as many detractors as he had supporters but that does not have any relation to the quality of the comic story told and illustrated about him.
What is it that is required that we all do here?
Is it that artists and authors can only write, draw or paint to a specific point of view, as required by an Arts Council , or is it that artistic expression and the creators various opinions and views of the reality that surrounds them should be sacrosanct? What use is art , otherwise? it has always been much more than simple decoration.
As for the Bobby Sands “graphic novel”, I haven’t seen it to judge it properly, but it is up against some steep competition when compared to the work of some of my own personal heroes and their own work .Unlike some of the critics , I’ll not condemn it unseen because of its subject matter, but I’m waiting to see it critiqued by someone who actually knows something about comics and not some politician who barely understands what a “graphic novel” is. .